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Georgia: Shevardnadze To Host Silk Road Conference

London, 3 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is to host an international conference later this month that will focus on the revival of the Silk Road, the historic corridor linking Europe and Asia through the Caucasus.

The conference (June 29-30) will be attended by investment and transport ministers from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Entitled "Restoring the Silk Route," it will discuss business opportunities across the Caspian region in the transport sector, particularly in equipment and training.

The Tbilisi conference is being organized by Apco Europe, the European affiliate of a U.S. strategic communications company. Participants will include the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and private investment banks

The event will coincide with the announcement of road, railway and port development projects under the umbrella of Traceca, an EU initiative aimed at improving transport links between Europe and Asia. Traceca includes the five central Asian countries, the three Transcaucasus nations, plus Ukraine, Mongolia and Moldova.

Delegates to the fifth working conference of Traceca in Georgia last month signed a multilateral accord to improve transport through the region. The pact aims to make the Silk route more competitive by simplifying tariff and customs arrangements, and to help it compete with alternative transport routes across Russia.

Cees Witterbrood, the head of an EU technical assistance unit, said transport in the region is fragmented and there are problems at frontiers because of customs and other restrictions. He was quoted as saying it was necessary to "promote all forms of transport under equal conditions for all participating countries."

The drive to improve communications began after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. This focused outside interest on the newly-independent Transcaucasus and Central Asian nations. The region -- long isolated behind one of the most closed borders in the world -- has huge oil and gas fields, gold and other mineral wealth.

Now, the eventual goal is to establish a 21st century Silk Road, or "Superhighway", running through the "Euro-Asian heartland", and including roads, railways, telecommunications and oil and gas pipelines. Its route will trace the historic Silk Road that carried goods and ideas from China to Europe along 6,000 km-long caravan routes across Central Asia and the Caucasus to Turkey.

But the region needs to overcome problems inherited from the Soviet era. The Central Asian and Transcaucasus nations have long been isolated from their neighbors, including Turkey and Iran, but also from each other, by a central planning system that distorted internal linkages. The Soviet-era system was an "open hub-and-spoke arrangement" whereby the spokes were cut off from each other as they revolved around the distant hub of Moscow. (Phone calls from Tbilisi to Tashkent were routed through Moscow).

After two centuries of Tsarist and Soviet domination, the region is re-orienting itself along "east-west lines of latitude" instead of "north-south lines of longitude", and restoring historic trading and cultural links with its neighbors. The revival of the Silk Road -- to be discussed at the Tbilisi conference -- is part of the process.